Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Parental involvement overrated? Don't buy it

By Todd Rogers, Lucas Coffman and Peter Bergman
updated 4:08 PM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
Keeping parents informed about their children's progress in school can help with homework completion, the authors say.
Keeping parents informed about their children's progress in school can help with homework completion, the authors say.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Recent articles said helping children with schoolwork has little value
  • They say it's a misreading of research because kids getting help often fare poorly anyway
  • They say numerous studies show grades, attendance improve when parents onboard
  • Writers: Texting parents on progress, holding meetings with teachers critical to success

Editor's note: Todd Rogers is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Lucas Coffman is assistant professor of economics at Ohio State University. Peter Bergman is assistant professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) -- Should you be involved with your children's schooling?

Several recent articles have questioned the common belief that parent involvement is critical to improving student performance in school. One recent New York Times op-ed, titled "Parental Involvement Is Overrated," and an Atlantic piece called "Don't Help Your Kids With Their Homework," touched off a heated discussion online suggesting that parental involvement is of surprisingly little value to student achievement and, if anything, does more harm than good.

This interpretation of the evidence is misguided. Worse, it sends a dangerous message to families and policymakers: Encouraging parental involvement is unlikely to improve educational outcomes or reduce achievement gaps.

Todd Rogers
Todd Rogers
Lucas Coffman
Lucas Coffman
Peter Bergman
Peter Bergman

Citing their research, the authors of the Times piece, Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, describe provocative findings that show that students of parents who are very involved in their children's education perform worse than students of parents who are less involved.

While the authors control for certain variables, their research only implies there is a relationship between parental involvement and student performance. This caveat is important; the existence of a relationship does not tell us what causes what.

Think of it this way: If you had two children, and one was getting A's and the other C's, which of them would you help more? The C student. An outsider, noticing that you've spent the school year helping only one of your children, might infer that parental help caused that child to earn lower grades. This of course would not be the case, and inferring causation here would be a mistake.

Fortunately, a rapidly growing body of research -- including our own -- looks at whether low-cost parental engagement interventions can cause changes in student performance. We are researchers in economics and psychology who conduct randomized controlled experiments in educational settings.

Randomized experiments, modeled after medical clinical trials, are the "gold standard" for understanding whether a given behavior causes a change in a specific outcome. Results from these experiments suggest that involving parents is a potent, cost-effective and scalable way to increase student achievement in a number of settings.

Are U.S. students falling behind?
Film details impact of race on education
Enrollment up in no-test, no-tech school

Highlights from this new literature include interventions in low-income areas of Brazil, France, India and the United States. Sending parents whose high school children attended school in a low-income area of Los Angeles text messages when their kids miss assignments can cause student performance to increase as much as high-performing charter schools cause student performance to increase. In France, inviting parents to meetings with school staff on how to navigate the transition to middle school and also providing materials on the roles of different school personnel reduces truancy by 25%.

Paying low-income parents in India to improve their children's literacy can be as effective at increasing child literacy as paying the children directly, especially if the parents are literate and have the time and resources to devote to their children. Providing literacy classes for mothers in India can meaningfully increase children's test scores. Asking Boston teachers to call middle school parents in the evening to let them know about their children's academic progress, behavior and upcoming assignments can cut in-class misbehavior by 25% and improve on-time homework completion by 40%.

Delivering brief messages to parents on a weekly basis about what their children are doing well and doing poorly can cut summer school dropout rate almost in half. Sending parents two letters and providing access to a website with information about the usefulness of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, classes can increase the number of STEM classes their high school children take by one full semester. Texting poor parents in Brazil if their child skips school can empower parents to compel the child to attend school.

Informing parents of public schools' average test scores leads parents to choose higher performing schools for their children. At H&R Block, allowing parents the option to have a federal financial aid form auto-filled for them using their tax return data can increase the likelihood that their child completes two years of college over the next three years from 28% to 36%. This is a new area of research, and there are more questions than answers, but the results are extremely promising and mutually supporting.

Parents are a cornerstone of educational success, and we need policies that empower, inform and involve them. The good news is that research on what kinds of cost-effective policies this entails is under way.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT